Book Review: The Devil Aspect by Craig Russell
By Larry ClowMarch 6, 2019
Craig Russell’s new historical thriller The Devil Aspect centers around an asylum for the criminally insane in Prague, 1935. As a new serial killer emerges in the city, a young psychiatrist works with the asylum’s serial killer-patients to research whether they exhibit an archetype of evil called “The Devil Aspect.”
Dread hangs heavy over the Hrad Orlů Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Housed in a medieval castle in the mountains outside Prague, the facility houses the Czech Republic’s six most infamous killers, as well as a host of legends about ancient evils and dark secrets. Steeped in malignancy, it’s a place that, according to the locals, only brings ruin to those who set foot inside.
The asylum’s interior tells a different story. It’s 1935 and psychiatric medicine is dispensing with outdated notions about evil and madness. The facility is stocked with cutting edge equipment, advanced security systems and a staff who, for the most part, view their patients not as monsters but as people in need of a cure. Evil is not so much a primal force as the result of underlying trauma—treat the trauma, the doctor’s argue, and a person’s capacity for evil will fade.
Craig Russell sets those two ideas against each other in The Devil Aspect, a richly Gothic thriller that succeeds despite its excesses. Best known abroad for his two mystery series—the Lennox novels, noirs set in 1950s Glasgow, and the Fabel series, about a police investigator who hunts serial killers in Hamburg—Russell makes his U.S. debut with The Devil Aspect. It’s something of a hybrid of his previous books mashed up with Slavic folklore, German expressionist films, and the specter of Hitler’s rise to power. It’s a big, ambitious book whose parts end up being greater than the whole.
The Devil Aspect follows Viktor Kosárek, an idealistic young psychiatrist and student of Carl Jung. He’s taken a job at Hrad Orlů, where he hopes to use pioneering medical techniques to prove his theory of what he calls “the Devil Aspect,” the potential for evil that resides in each person’s mind. Viktor believes that treating the asylum’s half-dozen patients—known as the “Devil’s Six” due to the severity of their crimes and each with a clever serial killer nickname—will yield the evidence he needs and, potentially, cure the patients. As he explains:
“We all have a part of ourselves—the id—an element in our deep unconscious that’s impulsive, volatile and potentially violent. It’s the impulses of the id that our egos keep in check. And within the id, I believe there is an element that is the coalescence of all our ideas—individually and collectively—of evil.”
“Your Devil Aspect?”
“Exactly,” said Viktor. “Our whole concept of the Devil—personally, culturally, psychically—lies in this aspect, which is why I gave it that name.”
A man of science, Viktor believes evil is innate and treatable. That he’s stationed in a creepy old castle that was allegedly built on top of Hell’s front door and used at one point to imprison a maniacal nobleman only strengthens his faith in science and medicine.
Meanwhile in nearby Prague, police captain Lukáš Smolák is hunting a new serial killer, one who gives the Devil’s Six stiff competition in terms of depravity. Dubbed “Leather Apron” by the press, the killer has managed to rack up a string of victims without leaving a trace of evidence. Smolák is frustrated and puzzled, particularly when his leading suspect claims that the Devil himself is the real murderer. As he chases down diminishing leads, all his investigation’s paths lead to Hrad Orlů. He hopes Viktor and the other doctors there can offer insight into Leather Apron’s madness, but also fears the asylum has some darker connection to the case.
In its best moments, The Devil Aspect is a masterful blend of adjacent genres. There are shades of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s Jack the Ripper graphic novel From Hell and a dash of F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep and Mark Frost’s The List of Seven. Smolák’s hunt for Leather Apron across the streets of Prague plays out like a Fritz Lang film, a trip through a shadowy labyrinth of streets in which not even one’s own senses can be trusted. That results in some great, evocative passages like this:
“The street was dark, a curtain of thick mist hanging in the air, dulling the streetlights. As he ran, the cobbles beneath Smolák’s feet were black-wet and frequently slick with motor oil. His foot landed on a slippery patch and he skidded and slipped, eventually landing heavily on the cobbles . . . The fog shrank Smolák’s universe to a tight sphere of awareness, three or four meters across. The rest of Prague, the rest of the world, seemed distant and impossible, as if this small bubble of existence was all there was. And his suspect wasn’t in it.”
And, like many of Lane’s Weimar-era films, The Devil Aspect contains a deep vein of political paranoia. Viktor must navigate tricky political waters with the asylum’s staff, some of whom are convinced that Hitler and the Nazis have some great ideas. In a region where religious and ethnic identities are so important, every conversation has the potential to incite anger or arouse suspicions. Russell seems to set up the specter of the Nazis as an answer to the question of whether evil is innate or supernatural—but, ultimately, he declines to commit.
Running parallel to the politics and psychiatry is a deep dive into Slavic myth and the region’s history. This likewise yields some stunning writing and allows Russell to engage in some deft plotting under the cover of Jungian theory. The Devil’s Six all claim that some outside force compelled them to become killers. Their monologues, delivered during sessions with Viktor, tap into ancient myths and modern science and hint at disturbing commonalities that, logically, should be impossible. Those hints propel Viktor’s story, but too many ultimately become red herrings.
It takes a bit too long for Viktor and Smolák’s plotlines to connect, and by the time they do, Russell is rocketing to a conclusion that all feels a little too tidy. There’s a white-knuckle finale with some well-executed action, but the final pages don’t provide the closure the rest of the book seems to promise. Smolák is the more compelling of the book’s two protagonists, but once the mystery of Leather Apron’s identity is solved, he vanishes with much of a resolution. Judita, a hospital staff member and Viktor’s love interest, is similarly shuffled off.
And yet, The Devil Aspect remains compelling. Though there are too many false leads and arguably too many serial killers roaming about (all of whom get long monologues), the individual elements work. Smolák is the sort of character who could helm his own series, and Russell’s ability to evoke the mood and atmosphere of the 1930s Czech Republic is impressive. While the big picture doesn’t totally gel, Russell finds the Devil in the details—and really makes him work.